Chapter 1: Daisy 1 Daisy
Daisy Shoemaker couldn’t sleep.
She knew, of course, that she was not alone, awake in the middle of the night. She’d read Facebook posts, magazine articles, entire books written about women her age consumed by anxiety, gnawed by regret, tormented by their hormones, fretful about their marriages, their bodies, their aging parents and their troublesome teenagers and, thus, up all night. In bed, on a Sunday night in March, with her husband’s snores audible even through her earplugs, Daisy pictured her tribe, her sleepless sisters, each body stretched on the rack of her own imagination, each face lit by the gently glowing rectangle in her hands.
Picture each worry like a gift. Put them in order, from the mildest to the most intense. Imagine yourself picking up each one and wrapping it with care. Picture yourself placing the gift under a tree, and then walking away.
Daisy had read that technique on some website, or in some magazine. She’s tried it along with all the others. She had imagined her worries like leaves, floating down a stream; she pictured them like clouds, drifting past in the sky; like cars, zipping by on the highway. She had practiced progressive muscle relaxation; she played, in her noise-canceling headphones, murmurous podcasts and Spotify mixes of soothing, sleep-inducing sounds—the chiming of Tibetan singing bowls; Gregorian chants, whales moaning to one another across the vast and chambered deep. She had swallowed melatonin and slugged down valerian tea, and trained herself to leave her phone charging in the bathroom instead of right next to her bed, with the ringer turned up in case her daughter, away at boarding school, should need her in the middle of the night.
Thoughts of Beatrice made her sigh, then look guiltily over her shoulder to make sure she hadn’t woken Hal. Hal was still sleeping, flat on his back, arms and legs starfished wide. They had a king-sized bed, and most mornings Daisy woke up clinging to the edge of her side. Hal, while not unsympathetic, had been notably short on solutions. “What do you want me to do?” he’d asked, sounding maddeningly reasonable and slightly indulgent. “It’s not like I’m pushing you off the bed on purpose. I’m asleep.” He’d given her permission to wake him up. “Just give me a poke,” he’d said. “Shake my shoulder.” Probably because he knew she never would.
Sighing, Daisy rolled over to face the window. It was still dark outside, the sky showing no signs of brightening, which meant it was probably two or three in the morning, the absolute pit of the night. She had a big day coming up, and she needed to try to sleep. Breathe in, two, three, four, she coached herself. Hold, two, three, four. Breathe out. She exhaled slowly, trying, and failing, not to think about how the dean had sounded when he’d called to inform them of Beatrice’s latest transgression, which had involved gathering up the members of the Emlen Feminist Liberation (pronounced Ef-el) and spray-painting the word RAPIST across a male classmate’s dorm-room door.
“Unfortunately, this is not Beatrice’s first infraction of our honor code,” the dean had intoned. “We’ll need at least one of Beatrice’s parents to come up here to discuss this.”
“Okay,” Daisy had stammered. “Although—would you mind calling my husband? You have his number, right?” She wanted Hal to handle this. Hal was the Emlen graduate in the house, the one whose own father had attended the school, a loyal alumnus who donated money each year, in addition to paying Bea’s tuition. He’d know what to do… and, if the dean called, Hal would hear the news from the school and not her.
“Of course,” said the dean. Daisy had hung up, her legs watery with relief, thinking, Hal will fix this. Hal will talk to him. He’ll figure it out, and by the time he comes home, everything will be fine.
But Hal hadn’t, and it wasn’t. Two hours later her husband had stormed into the house, wearing the blue suit and red-and-gold tie that he’d left in that morning and a thunderous look on his face. “They’re probably going to expel her,” he said. “We need to be there Monday morning. Don’t look so happy about it,” he’d snapped before Daisy had even said anything, and Daisy turned away, her face burning. He brushed past her, on his way to the stairs. “I’m very disappointed in her. You should be, too.”
“But…” He was already halfway up the staircase. When she spoke, he stopped, his hand on the railing, his body telegraphing impatience. “Did the boy do what she said?”
Hal turned around. “What?”
Daisy steeled herself. She hadn’t talked to Beatrice yet—her daughter was ignoring her texts, and every phone call she’d made had gone straight to voice mail. “Don’t you think we should hear her side of things, too? To find out what really happened?”
Hal shook his head. “Whatever happened, Beatrice isn’t judge and jury up there. She vandalized school property, she accused someone, in public, of something he might not have done. And,” he concluded, like he was making a closing argument in court, “she’d already been in trouble.”
Daisy bent her head. It was true. Even before the incident, Beatrice had been on academic probation for cutting classes. Her daughter ran an Etsy shop on which she sold tiny felt replicas of pets for a hundred dollars apiece. She had made it very clear, to her parents and the school’s administrators, that she preferred crafts to academics.
“Maybe Beatrice just wasn’t a boarding school kind of kid,” Daisy ventured. This was a point she’d made repeatedly when they were deciding whether to send her, a decision that was no decision at all, because, practically from the moment of her birth, Hal had been planning on Bea going to Emlen, which he, and his father, and both of Daisy’s brothers, had attended. “You’ll carry on the family tradition,” he’d said, to which Beatrice had rolled her eyes.
Hal believed the experience of boarding school would make their daughter strong and independent. Daisy thought that Beatrice was too young to be away from home, and that she’d be going to college soon enough, so why rush her out the door? “And Beatrice doesn’t even want to go,” Daisy argued. She’d tried to explain to her husband the particular tenderness of the fourteen-year-old girl. She remembered being that age and feeling as if she was moving through the world like a snail or a turtle whose shell had been removed: freakish and vulnerable; naked and weird. At least, that was how she’d felt, although she suspected that her daughter was made of sterner stuff. Still, she’d made her case: that girls their daughter’s age were especially susceptible to any insult or injury, that even the smallest slight would wound Beatrice terribly, and that she would carry those hurts with her forever, the way Daisy herself did. But Hal hadn’t listened.
“It’s not up to Beatrice,” Hal said, in a tone that was pedantic and ever-so-slightly patronizing. “It’s up to us to do what’s best for her.”
They’d gone around and around, and Hal, as usual, had prevailed. He’d gotten Bea to write an essay through some combination of cajolery and outright bribery, and Daisy suspected that he’d upped his annual gift to the school to an amount that could have ensured the acceptance of a hunk of rock. Beatrice had gotten into the car willingly, had been chatty and even excited on the drive to New Hampshire. But after she’d arrived, her phone calls consisted of one-word answers (“How are your classes?” “Fine.” “Do you like your roommate?” “Sure.”). On her first-semester report card, she’d gotten straight Cs and a dozen unexcused absences.
Hal continued up the stairs, muttering about how that was the last donation he’d ever be giving Emlen. Daisy waited for the sound of the bedroom door closing before calling her daughter, who finally deigned to pick up. “What happened?” Daisy asked. She wasn’t sure if Beatrice would be angry, or sad, or ashamed. Given the vagaries of fourteen-year-old emotions, any of those, singularly or in combination, wouldn’t have surprised her. But Beatrice sounded calm, even—could it be?—happy.
“They’ll probably kick me out. You and Dad have to come up here.” She lowered her voice. “The dean wants to talk to you.”
Daisy said, “Do you think there’s any chance they’ll let you stay?”
“Probably not!” Beatrice didn’t just sound pleasant, Daisy realized. She actually sounded cheerful. “It’s fine, though. Now I can tell Dad that I tried, but that this isn’t for me.”
Daisy’s mind sped backward to a memory of her daughter at two and a half, in a tiny pair of denim OshKosh overalls, with a striped pink-and-white T-shirt underneath, determinedly trying to climb the garden stairs, falling on her diapered bottom each time. No, Mumma, I want to do it my OWN self. They’d called her Trixie back then, and Daisy could still see her, on her first day at kindergarten, posing proudly with a backpack that looked as big as she was. She could remember the powdery, milky smell of Bea’s skin when Daisy would kiss her good night; the weight of her as an infant, like a warm, breathing loaf of bread, when she’d finally fall asleep in Daisy’s arms. She could remember, too, getting teary at some Disney movie or another when Beatrice was four or five, and her daughter staring at her curiously, asking why she was crying. “Because it’s sad,” Daisy had said, gesturing toward the screen. Beatrice had patted her mother’s forearm with her plump starfish hand. “Mumma,” she’d said kindly, “those are not real people.”
Timidly, Beatrice asked, “Is Dad really mad?”
“He’s just worried about you, honey,” Daisy said. “He wants you to be happy.”
There’d been a pause. Then Beatrice, sounding cynical and older than her years, had said, “We both know that’s not true.”
Picture each worry like a gift.
Daisy began with the biggest one, her daughter. Hal had already decreed that, if they expelled her, Beatrice would attend the Melville School, a private, co-ed institution on the Main Line that had already told Hal they’d be more than happy to take her for the remainder of the year (they’d also been happy, Daisy had noted, to charge them for an entire year’s tuition). Beatrice would probably complain about not going to Lower Merion High, with her middle-school friends, but she’d survive.
Of course, Beatrice back home meant another three and a half years living with a daughter who behaved as if she despised her. Daisy hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten until Beatrice was at Emlen, and there’d been a lovely calm spell, stretches of nights without fights, without wall-rattling slammed doors or screamed “I hate yous!” She and Hal had enjoyed a few quiet dinners, a few peaceful hours together on the sofa. Several of those evenings had even concluded with a pleasant interlude on the king-sized bed. Hal had commented, frequently, on how pleasant things were, how enjoyable, with Beatrice gone, but to Daisy, the silences seemed to echo more loudly than the shouting ever had. The house felt like a museum, and she felt like a trespasser, sneaking around and trying not to trip the alarms.
Daisy worried about her daughter. She worried about her mom, who’d had two small “cerebral events” the previous year, and had spent six weeks in a rehab facility. Even though her mother’s gentleman friend Arnold Mishkin had promised he’d take care of her, Daisy still had fantasies of opening her front door one morning to find Judy Rosen standing in her driveway, surrounded by suitcases and the Lladró figurines she’d recently started collecting. Of course, her brother Danny would help. Danny lived sixty miles away, in Lambertville, with his husband, in a three-bedroom ranch house with plenty of room, but Judy would insist on staying with Daisy. Daisy was the youngest, and the only girl, which, in Judy’s world order, made Daisy the one responsible for her care.
In her imagination, Daisy wrapped her mother, and her mother’s figurines. She put them away and moved on to the other worries impatiently waiting their turn, jostling for her attention.
There was Lester, their elderly beagle/basset hound, whose heart condition was getting worse. Poor Lester, at twelve, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and was on three different medications, and he seemed to be losing his appetite, and Hal was already making noises about how it might be time for Lester to go to that great dog park in the sky.
Which brought her, finally, to Hal. Did he still love her? Had he ever loved her? Was he having an affair? Two years ago, there’d been a summer associate of whom he’d spoken almost endlessly, and, at a Christmas party the year before that, Daisy thought she noticed one of the paralegals staring across the punch bowl. The pretty young woman’s gaze had moved from Hal to Daisy back to Hal again, and Daisy could imagine what she was thinking: I don’t get it. What could he possibly see in her? At fifty, Hal was handsome, even dashing, his shoulders still broad and his belly still flat, the lines on his long face and the gray in his dark curls only adding to his appeal, whereas Daisy, twelve years younger, just looked short and dumpy and, probably, desperate. If Hal wanted extramarital fun and excitement, he’d have ample opportunity. Daisy tried not to think too much about that, or whether she’d care if she learned that Hal was cheating, or if she’d just feel relieved that someone else was tending to what he used to call my manly needs. She would have asked her best friend, Hannah, her opinion, whether Hal was being faithful and what she, Daisy, should be doing if he wasn’t, except, nine months ago, Hannah had died.
Daisy rolled from her left side onto her right. She sighed again, and made herself close her eyes. She had met her husband when she was twenty years old, and he was almost thirty-three. Red flag, red flag, red flag, her friends had chanted, all of them certain that there had to be something wrong with a guy Hal’s age who’d never been married, who was interested in a woman almost thirteen years his junior. Hal had clearly been aware of the conventional wisdom, because, on their first date, he’d said, “I should probably tell you how I got to be this old with no wife or kids.”
“At least you don’t have an ex-wife,” said Daisy.
Hal hadn’t smiled before clearing his throat. “I was a pretty big drinker, for years.”
Daisy said, “Oh.” She was thinking about twelve-step programs, about Higher Powers and meetings and sponsors and You’re only as sick as your secrets. She thought, At least he’s telling me now, before I got really interested and, then, Ugh, but I liked him! She’d liked his confidence, and—shallow, but true—she’d liked his looks. Hal was handsome, with olive-tinted skin that stayed tanned even in the winter and emphatic brows, like dark dash marks over his eyes. He had a way of taking up space that felt like a first cousin of arrogance—the result, Daisy assumed, of his age, the money he’d grown up with, and the success he’d already had as a lawyer. He’d come to her door in a tweed sports coat and a tie with a bouquet of flowers for her mom, apricot-colored roses and lilies. He’d held the car door for her, waiting until she was settled before walking around the car and getting behind the wheel. He drove skillfully, and asked Daisy questions, and seemed to actually listen to what she said.
Daisy had liked that he was older; that he knew who he was, that he already had an advanced degree, a house, a career. A man like that seemed unlikely to announce, the way her roommate’s boyfriend recently had, that he wanted to pursue an MFA in poetry instead of an MBA in finance, or to decide, like one of Daisy’s previous beaus, that he wanted to try sleeping with men in addition to women.
All of that zipped through her mind as she sat across from Hal in the restaurant she’d picked. Hal must have seen it. Daisy had never been good about keeping her feelings off her face. “Don’t worry,” he’d said, smiling. “My friends didn’t do an intervention. I never went to rehab, and I don’t go to meetings. It wasn’t anything like that. I liked drinking, but I didn’t like who I was when I drank. So I stopped.”
“Just like that?” Daisy had asked.
“Just like that. For the last three years, I’ve had a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve, and that’s it.” He made a rueful face, those emphatic eyebrows lifting. “I’m not going to tell you that the first few days, or weeks, were pleasant. But I’d never been an every-single-day drinker. I guess I was lucky. But yes. I just stopped.”
“And it doesn’t bother you if…” She’d nodded at the sake that he’d ordered for her.
He shook his head. His voice sounded a little gravelly when he’d said, “I like to see a woman enjoy herself.”
She’d kissed him that night, made out with him after their next date, slept with him on the date after that. And it had been good. Better than good. The best sex she’d ever had. Not that she’d had a lot of sex. She’d slept with exactly four boys, two of them just once, and Hal had been the first one with whom she’d had an orgasm. At first, when he’d kissed his way down her belly and gently coaxed her thighs apart, she’d been self-conscious and shy, wondering if she should have waxed, or shaved, or washed herself ahead of time, but then he’d pressed his face right against her, breathing her in, his hands tightening on her hips, pulling her closer, like he couldn’t get enough of her. He’d eased her underpants down her legs, and, before she could worry about how she smelled or looked down there, Hal had done something, made some combination of movements with his fingers and his tongue. Daisy had jolted off the bed like she’d been electrified. “Oh,” she’d said. “Oh.” Hal had laughed, low in his throat, and then Daisy had forgotten to worry, or to think about anything at all. When he raised his face, still wet, to hers, Daisy had kissed him, and she’d tasted herself on his mouth. Hal had still been kissing her when he’d rolled on top of her, pushing inside of her in a single stroke, then pulling out slowly, and doing it again, and Daisy had thought, So this is what all the fuss is about.
When it was over, she’d rested against him, catching her breath, and then she’d gone to the kitchen, determined to woo him, to delight him the way he’d delighted her. She’d cracked an egg into semolina flour, running the dough swiftly through her pasta machine while a pot of salted water came to a boil. She’d cooked the ribbons of pasta perfectly al dente and served them with salt and pepper and good Parmesan and a poached egg resting gently on top. Hal had twirled the first strands around his fork and raised them to his mouth, and from the look on his face she thought she was feeling a version of what she’d felt when he’d done that thing with his tongue. “This is amazing,” he’d told her. “You’re amazing.” Daisy had smiled shyly, wondering how long it would take before they could make love again.
Six months later, they’d been married. Her college classmates had been shocked, some of them appalled, others just titillated, at the idea of Daisy dropping out of school and getting married so young. Daisy’s mother was unabashedly delighted. “Your father would have been so happy,” Judy had sniffled, before lowering the veil over Daisy’s eyes. “He would have wanted to pay for it, too. He wanted to give you everything.” But Daisy’s father, Jack Rosen, who’d spent his whole life being either flush with cash or close to broke, had died of a heart attack when Daisy was fourteen, at the bottom of one of his slumps. There were no savings. He’d left no life insurance, either, and her brothers, twelve and thirteen years older than she was, were just starting lives of their own.
Daisy had abandoned her plan of following her brothers to Emlen, which had gone co-ed just three years before. Instead, she’d moved with her mother to a two-bedroom condominium in a not-great part of West Orange, graduating from public high school, taking out loans to attend Rutgers. After Hal had proposed, she’d told him that, while she knew it was traditional for the bride’s family to pay for the wedding, in her case, that wouldn’t be happening. Hal had looked at her tenderly, then pulled out a credit card. “This is yours, for anything you need,” he’d said. “I’m your family now.”
The wedding had been in a hotel in Center City, a raucous affair that had gone until two in the morning with lots of Hal’s friends from his law firm and college and prep school. There’d been a three-week honeymoon in Hawaii, and then Daisy had moved into Hal’s house, the four-bedroom colonial on the Main Line where he’d grown up, which he’d inherited from his dad, who’d moved into a retirement community after his wife’s death. Vernon Shoemaker had taken almost all of the furniture with him, leaving only a pair of towering oak bookcases in the den and a king-sized box spring and mattress in the bedroom. Other than a pair of folding chairs and a very large TV, the house was empty. Hal told Daisy to keep the credit card and get whatever she wanted.
Her plan had been to transfer to Temple or Drexel and finish her degree, but she’d spent that first year shopping and decorating, settling in. For their first anniversary Hal had taken her to Paris, and when she’d come home she’d been pregnant. Instead of a college graduate, she’d become a mom.
Daisy opened her eyes, flipped onto her back, and stared up at the ceiling. I have everything I want, she told herself. A stable marriage—or maybe just a marriage that would stay stable as long as she didn’t ask questions. A smart, creative, accomplished daughter who was, if not happy, then at least healthy. Financial security. A lovely home. A thriving, if small, business, giving lessons to the cooking-challenged. A husband who didn’t yell, and certainly didn’t hit; a man who still seemed to desire her. Why, then, did she sometimes feel lonely or trapped or incompetent?
It was true that Hal had been moody lately, quiet and brooding for the last six months. Stress at work, fights with Beatrice, and then, right after they’d finally dropped her off at Emlen, one of Hal’s friends had died.
Daisy remembered everything about the morning she’d learned about Brad. At seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Daisy had come downstairs, still yawning after another mostly sleepless night. Hal was in the kitchen, in his running clothes, with a spinach-based smoothie in the blender and his phone in his hand. Daisy knew immediately, from his posture, and the untouched smoothie, that something was wrong. “What is it?” she’d asked, placing her hand on his back, against the slippery, high-tech fabric of his shirt.
In a faraway voice, he’d said, “Bubs died.”
“Oh, no!” Brad Burlingham, otherwise known as Bubs, was one of Hal’s group of Emlen buddies, a heavyset, florid-faced man with an endless supply of dirty jokes. Daisy had never liked him, maybe because she only ever saw him at parties, and he was almost always drunk, but he’d been one of Hal’s senior-year roommates. “What happened?” Heart attack, she guessed. The last time she’d seen Bubs he hadn’t looked well. But Hal, still sounding distant, his face still grave and shocked, said, “Suicide,” before setting his phone down gently on the counter and saying, “I need to call the guys.”
Daisy had offered to accompany him to Brad’s funeral, but Hal had turned her down, saying, in a clipped voice, “You didn’t really know him.” And what I knew, I didn’t like, Daisy thought. She’d never understand why Hal included Brad in his boys’ weekends, had never been able to discern any kind of appeal, but she’d just smiled, said, “Travel safe,” and made sure there was a fresh toothbrush and a new razor in his shaving kit.
Daisy sat up and swung her legs out of bed, sliding her feet along the floor until she found her slippers with her toes. She moved noiselessly through the darkness with the ease of long practice. From the chaise lounge against the wall, a piece of furniture that existed to be a repository for clothes and for baskets of laundry, she picked up her robe, pulling it around her shoulders as she padded down to her desk just off the kitchen. She pulled her laptop free from its charger and carried it to the living room, opening her email in-box. Saks was having a sale; the local library needed volunteers to run the book drive; and she’d been invited to a fiftieth birthday party in Marin County. Brad and I hope you’ll join us for a glorious weekend of wine, food, and reminiscing! read the text, beneath the picture of a verdant vineyard in the honeyed glow of a setting sun. Daisy read on, learning that the party would be at the Vintage Wine Estates, that there was a bike ride planned and a spa day for those who didn’t want to ride, and that cedar-plank salmon and filet mignon would be served at the Saturday night dinner. She felt a little guilty even looking, because this invitation, of course, was not for her. Daisy’s real name was Diana, and she’d used it as part of the email address she’d claimed way back in high school—DianaS at Earthlink. This other woman, the other Diana, was Diana.S at Earthlink. For the last six months, Daisy had been receiving emails that she realized were intended not for her, but for the other Diana.
The other Diana’s emails were innocuous things—an invitation to a tennis tournament or a dinner or to grab drinks at a bar. Enough to give Daisy a sense of the contours of the other woman’s life, and to realize that, of the two of them, the other Diana seemed to be having a lot more fun.
As Lester navigated the stairs on his stumpy legs and heaved himself effortfully onto the couch beside her, Daisy sent the birthday-party invitation email back with a brief note—sorry, I’m the wrong Diana. She was about to open up Facebook and post some obligatory comments—so cute!—on her brother’s latest photographs of his kids when her in-box pinged. A note from the other Diana, with SORRY!!! in the memo line, had arrived.
Daisy clicked it open. “I’m so sorry you keep getting my emails. I apologize on behalf of my friends.”
Daisy stared at the missive, and then, before she could overthink, she wrote back. “No worries,” she typed. “I’m enjoying living your life vicariously (in lieu of having my own).” The instant she’d hit “send” she was awash with regret. Had she sounded too flip? Too snobby? Did anyone say “in lieu” anymore? Should she have included an emoji, or at least written “LOL”?
She’d been on the verge of panic when her in-box had dinged again. “LOL,” the other Diana had written. “I’m a corporate consultant based in NYC. It’s nonstop glamour.” With the rolling-eye emoji after that.
“Anything is more glamorous than my life,” Daisy typed. “I have a teenager who hates me, a husband who’s never home, and an old dog with digestive issues.” She hit “send” before she could rethink it. “Sorry, Lester,” she murmured. Lester gave her a mournful look, loosed a sonorous fart, and rearranged himself against her leg, where he promptly went back to sleep… and, then, again, her in-box was pinging. This time Diana had sent three emojis, all of the scrunched-up, tears-coming-out-of-its-eyes laughing face. “I don’t have any children, but I have teenage nieces. I truly believe that teenage girls are God’s revenge on women for what they did to their mothers,” she wrote.
“I know she doesn’t really hate me. She’s trying to be independent. It’s what she’s supposed to do,” Daisy wrote back. After three different people had recommended it, she’d read a persuasive book that made the case about teenage girls and the work of separation, and she was trying hard to believe the words as she typed them.
“You’re right,” Diana replied. “But it still must be hard.”
“She’s probably going to be expelled from her school,” Daisy typed. “My husband and I are leaving first thing in the morning to drive to New Hampshire to meet with the dean.” Daisy, who’d been raised casually Jewish, had never been to a confessional, but she imagined the rite to feel something like this, sitting in the dark and telling all your sins to a stranger.
“Yikes,” wrote Diana. “Is that why you’re awake at two in the morning?”
“I have insomnia,” Daisy wrote. “Me and every other middle-aged woman.”
“Same here,” wrote Diana. “It’s the worst. And I’m sorry about your daughter.” Daisy appreciated that the expression of sympathy wasn’t paired with a request for information, a demand to know what Beatrice had done to get in trouble. “Do you feel like you’re the one who’s been called to the principal’s office?” Diana wrote.
“Dean, not principal,” Daisy typed, rolling her eyes, even as she felt grateful. For all his complaining, for all of his fury at Beatrice, Hal hadn’t seemed to realize that Beatrice’s expulsion had left Daisy feeling like she’d been the one found lacking. “And yes. I feel judged.”
For a moment, there was nothing. Then another email appeared, “I bet you could use a treat. If you’ve got a free night and can meet me in New York, I’ll buy you the best Bloody Mary of your life.” And again, Daisy barely hesitated before she typed the word Yes.
Six hours later, Daisy saw Hal’s jaw tighten as he pulled into a visitor’s parking spot on the Emlen campus parking lot. He turned off the car’s engine, unfolded his legs, stood up, and slammed the door harder than he had to. Daisy stared down at her lap for a moment, gathering herself, before opening her own door and stepping out into the early-spring chill. It was a gray, windy afternoon, with patches of snow visible under the leafless trees.
They crossed the quad, following a wide slate path up the hill to Shawcross Hall, a brick building that had been constructed, the tour guides liked to say, at the turn of the century—“the eighteenth century.” Each of the stone steps leading to its front door had a shallow depression at the center, worn from centuries of students’ feet. The panes of window glass were thick and wavery, and the room where they were told to wait for the dean, Dr. Baptiste, was dim and low-ceilinged. She and Hal perched on a pair of spindly-legged antique chairs, with Hal in his newest chalk-striped gray suit and Daisy in a black wool jersey dress, already sweating beneath her arms and at the small of her back. A radiator clanking in the corner filled the room with steamy air and the smell of wet wool. Daisy sighed and fanned her face with one of the admissions brochures arranged on the coffee table, until she saw Hal frowning. Carefully, she set the brochure back down.
The dean’s door swung open. “Mr. Shoemaker? Mrs. Shoemaker?” Hal and Daisy got to their feet and went into an expansive office that must have been remodeled, or added on. Unlike the warren of small, dark rooms, this room was airy, with high ceilings. A bay window looked out over the quad; a skylight admitted the grainy afternoon light.
Dr. Baptiste, a handsome man in late middle age, with glowing light-brown skin and dark hair that had gone a striking, snowy white at the temples, sat behind his fortress of a desk. He’d been one of a handful of Black students to attend Emlen back in the 1970s, when, Beatrice had told her parents, he’d sported an epic Afro. He’d gone on to Harvard, gotten a PhD in education, and been at Emlen since the mid-1990s. During that time, Emlen had gone co-ed and had gone from being viewed as one of the less desirable of the old New England prep schools—a place to deposit a wayward son who’d been booted from Exeter or who’d flunked out of Choate—to, once again, one of the top prep schools in the country, not quite on par with Andover or Exeter but certainly moving in the right direction. Dr. Baptiste had restored much of the school’s lost luster and rebuilt its endowment, which was currently in the hundred-million-dollar neighborhood. He’d overseen three capital campaigns; the construction of a new arts wing, with a state-of-the-art theater, and a natatorium; and the renovations of the campus cathedral. Daisy assumed that these accomplishments had overcome any reservations the more old-school (translation: racist) alums might have had about his role.
Beatrice was waiting for them, sitting in one of the wingback chairs, dressed in a black-and-green plaid kilt, a green sweater, and a primly high-necked white blouse with a pie-crust collar. In spite of the cold, her legs were bare, the skin chapped-looking and goose-pimpled. Her daughter’s jaw had the same stubborn set that Hal’s did, but she smiled, very slightly, when Daisy hugged her.
“We missed you,” Daisy whispered. Beatrice smelled like unfamiliar hair conditioner and cold New Hampshire spring. Daisy struggled to look stern as she took a seat, but it was hard to keep from smiling. Her daughter! Even in her handful of months away, she’d changed; the bones of her face shifting, childhood’s extra padding melting away to reveal the adult she was already on her way to becoming.
“Beatrice,” Hal said curtly.
“Hi, Dad.” Beatrice’s voice was raspy and low.
“Shall we get started?” The dean wore a blue sports coat, a tie in the school colors with a gold tie tack, and, on his feet, dark-brown wingtips, in defiance of the snow. A gold watch gleamed on his wrist, along with gold cuff links, a wedding band, and a heavy gold Emlen class ring. “Would anyone like anything? Coffee? Tea?”
“No thank you,” said Hal, and Daisy, who could have used a drink of water, said, “I’m fine.” She adjusted herself, sitting up very straight, wondering what it was about this room, or the dean, or Emlen itself, that made her feel so small, like she was Alice in Wonderland, like every chair would leave her feet dangling inches from the floor and every adult was a foot taller than she was. Maybe it was the visits she’d made as a little girl, on Parents’ Weekends and to watch her brothers graduate. Maybe when you first experience a place as a six-year-old, you become six again, every time you return.
The dean sat behind his desk, settling his elbows on the leather blotter. “I appreciate your willingness to come on such short notice.”
“We’re taking this very seriously,” Hal said.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said the dean. “It’s a serious matter.” He looked at Beatrice. “You understand that you’ve violated several of Emlen’s Core Practices?” Daisy could hear the capital letters in “Core” and “Practices.”
“I know.” Beatrice raised her chin. “I also know that Colin broke a few of them, too.”
“We’re not discussing Mr. Mackenzie,” said the dean.
“Why not?” Beatrice demanded. “I mean, is anyone going to talk about what he did? Like, ever?”
“Of course we are,” the dean said smoothly. “But that’s a matter for Mr. Mackenzie and his advisors and his family. Right now, we’re here to talk about you.”
“?‘An Emlen student is to conduct herself with honor and integrity,’?” Beatrice said. “That’s all I was trying to do.”
The dean sighed. “You understand, though, that there’s such a thing as due process? That your expression of honor and integrity cannot impugn the character of another student?”
“And that we can’t just punish students on one another’s say-so? That we have to take our time, gather the facts, do our due diligence? That we can’t resort to vigilantism and vandalism?”
Beatrice crossed her arms against her chest, chin jutting, eyes narrowed, her brows—dark and emphatic like Hal’s—drawn down. “Tricia followed the procedures. She told our RA, she told the dorm leader, she told her advisory leader, and she went to the counseling center. But nothing happened. Because nothing was ever going to happen. Because Colin matters more to you—to Emlen—than Tricia does.”
The dean pulled off his glasses and massaged the indentions on either side of his nose. “You understand that the deliberations of the Honor Council have to remain confidential?”
“Beatrice, answer the dean,” Hal snapped. Spots of color had risen in the middle of each of his cheeks.
“I understand,” Beatrice said in a robotic monotone. Daisy’s mouth felt dry, and her heart was beating very fast.
“You understand that we’d extend the same courtesies to you, had you been the one accused?”
“Of raping someone?” Beatrice scoffed. “I’m sure that happens a lot.” The dean started to talk again, but Beatrice spoke over him, her voice thin but steady. “Look, I’ve made my point. I know that what I did was against the rules, and the Code, and whatever, but I don’t think I did anything wrong, and I definitely didn’t do anything as bad as what Colin did. So kick me out, or suspend me or whatever, but don’t make me sit here and think I’m going to agree when you say that it’s fair.” She practically spat the last word before leaning back, a mottled flush creeping up her neck.
“Beatrice,” said the dean, “please wait outside.”
Beatrice bent down, jerked her backpack off the floor, slung it over her shoulder, and stomped out the door. Dr. Baptiste sighed.
“Sir, if I could…” Here comes Hal the lawyer, Daisy thought, as her husband, smooth-voiced and perfectly calm, armed with many facts, explained that Beatrice understood that she’d done wrong, and that if it wasn’t clear to her at that point, “her mother and I will help her understand that she’s not responsible for determining the innocence or guilt of her classmates.”
The dean listened. Or, at least, he gave the impression of listening. When Hal finished, he cleared his throat. “Emlen is a fine institution,” he began. He opened the top drawer of his desk and removed a pipe and a leather pouch full of tobacco. When he opened it, the rich smell of tobacco filled the room. Daisy watched as he pinched leaves between his fingertips and let them trickle into the pipe’s bowl. “A terrible habit, but I can’t seem to give it up,” he said. His tone was apologetic, but Daisy suspected he was enjoying the performance. She wondered how many students had sat where she was sitting, feeling like their lives were hanging in the balance as this ritual unfolded.
“Emlen is a fine institution,” he repeated. “Which, of course, you know.” Hal nodded quickly. Daisy could feel him beside her, thrumming like a guitar string stretched too tight.
“Can I—excuse me. If I may.” Daisy felt her cheeks get hot as both men turned to face her. The dean’s expression was neutral. Hal did not look happy. “It’s probably none of my business, and if this is confidential, of course you don’t have to tell me anything, but… well, what did happen? With Beatrice’s roommate and that boy?”
The dean let more tobacco fall into the pipe, then used a metal tamper to press it down. He lifted the stem to his lips, drew on it, and, once satisfied, set it back on the blotter and began filling the bowl again.
“What have you heard?” he asked.
Daisy started to speak, but stopped when she felt Hal’s hand on her forearm, squeezing with a pressure that said Let me handle this. “What Beatrice told us was that her roommate told her that a young man forced himself on her, over her objections. We told Beatrice to encourage her roommate to take the steps she mentioned—to tell her RA, and the dorm parent, and her advisor. We certainly would never tell her to take matters into her own hands.” Hal gave the dean a man-to-man smile and said, “Teenage girls. They get emotional. As I’m sure you know.”
“Okay, but what happened?” Daisy’s voice was too loud, and both men swung their heads around to stare at her, like she’d suddenly sprouted wings. She rubbed her hands against her legs. “Did that boy… did he do what Beatrice told us?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential.” The dean’s voice was cool. “I can assure you that we take any allegations of this nature seriously. We take our responsibilities, in loco parentis, and the health and well-being of our students seriously. Nothing matters to us more.”
“Of course,” Daisy said, thinking that the dean had just used a lot of words that told her less than nothing. The dean picked up a heavy gold lighter, spun its wheel, and applied the flame to the pipe’s bowl, moving it in circles as he puffed gently, wreathing his face in smoke and filling the room with the warm scent of burning tobacco.
“I’ve been here for almost twenty-five years, and in that time, I pride myself on being able to tell whether Emlen, with all it has to offer, is or is not the best place for a student. I think we can all agree that it’s not a matter of the best school, but a matter of finding the best place, the right place, for each individual student. And in this case,” he continued, his voice almost kind, “I’m afraid that it’s become abundantly clear…”
Oh, no, thought Daisy, as the hinges of Hal’s jaw bulged. “… that Emlen is not the best fit for Beatrice.”
“Please,” Daisy murmured, even though she wasn’t sure what she was pleading for. She suspected that the dean was probably right. Emlen had been the right place for Danny and David, and it had unquestionably been the right place for Hal, who’d made lifelong friends here; who spoke of his years at Emlen as the best years of his life. But Emlen, Daisy thought, had never been the right place for her daughter.
Hal got to his feet, unbuttoning his jacket and smoothing his tie, his lips pressed so tightly together that they’d vanished in his face. Daisy rose with him, and settled her hand on his arm, feeling the coiled tension of his muscles. She squeezed, a gesture that she hoped would communicate the futility of yelling or threats; that would speak of her desire to leave with their dignity and their daughter, even if it wasn’t Hal’s preferred outcome. This was her role in their partnership: she was the guardrails that kept Hal from veering off the road; she was the civilized counterweight to his most brutish instincts.
“Thank you for your time,” she said to the dean, and led her husband into the antechamber, to collect their daughter. She put her arm around Beatrice’s shoulders, pulling her close, and, just for a moment, Beatrice allowed the contact. “Let’s go home.”